Lukas' ways may become stable staple Trainer's corporate style breeds big-time success

May 14, 1992|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

It has taken $140 million in winnings, a Kentucky Derby trophy and one of the best records in horse racing. But D. Wayne Lukas finally is getting some respect.

For years, he was the trainer everyone loved to hate, the unhorseman who brought a CEO's sensibility to the sport of kings. He was derided for taking a McDonald's approach to stabling and a bottom-line view of the world's most pampered animals.

There still is some resentment, but former critics are complimenting his horses and copying his methods. Even die-hard traditionalists now admit that Lukas' corporate style might be the way of the future for the thoroughbred racing industry.

"He's made a lot of us aware of some of the other things in the business. I see trainers emulate him now," said Sonny Hine, a second-generation horseman and trainer of Technology, one of the favorites in Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico Race Course.

"The people who are sour grapes are envious," Hine said.

Lukas, 56, of Arcadia, Calif., has become a multimillionaire by breaking tradition in a tradition-laden business.

Standing outside the stakes barn at Pimlico in a pair of $450 ostrich-skin cowboy boots, creased blue jeans, pink oxford shirt and trademark Porsche designer sunglasses, Lukas said, "I marched to my own drummer.

When I first came up, there was a certain amount of animosity. You can't kick everybody's ass and not expect that," Lukas said with characteristic braggadocio.

He commands a business empire with four divisions, 169 horses and 293 employees. Last year, he was the nation's highest-earning trainer for the ninth year in a row, pulling in $16 million in winnings and posting nearly 300 victories. Horses he trained finished in the money 48 percent of the time.

His 10 percent stake of winnings has given him a lifetime personal income of about $14 million from thoroughbred racing, or roughly $1 million a year since he began doing it full time. This has allowed him to invest in some of the horses, something he said impresses the co-owners.

And impressing owners -- the clients of a trainer -- is something he has pioneered.

"We merchandise," he said.

At his stables around the country, the grounds are neatly landscaped and the barns primped. He strives for a consistency of style and quality, earning his operations the nickname "McStables."

"These guys [owners] come down in a limousine, and they don't want to see a messy operation," he said.

Even in the worn barns at Pimlico, his horses stand on a plush pile of extra-thick bedding behind full-length, white-metal gates that he carries from track to track (some trainers just string webbing across the door). Green buckets are posted like sentries outside every other stall, and large balls of hay hang precisely one-quarter of the way down each door.

A worker, part of an entourage of five that accompanied Lukas' horses to Pimlico, keeps the dirt out front well-raked.

"It's almost like a political campaign. They have advance people. They are very well-organized. It's extremely well-run," said Timothy Capps, vice president of racing at Pimlico and Laurel.

"It's probably one of the great marketing operations in racing," said Capps, a former Wall Street broker.

The style has attracted new investors to a sport once dominated by a clique of wealthy owners, Lukas said. Rap star Hammer, for example, owns Dance Floor, who finished third in the Derby and is running in the Preakness. Lukas' other entry is Big Sur.

Lukas also stresses the need to produce results quickly, aggressively pushing animals toward high-profile races such as the Derby and Preakness. Critics have accused him of pushing too hard and burning out animals, although some, such as Farma Way, last year's 4-year-old Pimlico Special winner, have shown staying power.

"The Gene Kleins of this world don't want to spend $500,000 to see a horse lose," Lukas said, referring to the late owner of the San Diego Chargers and the Lukas-trained Winning Colors, the 1988 Kentucky Derby champ.

Lukas' first Derby entry, Partez, finished third in 1981. That set off a frustrating series of disappointing Derby finishes: fourth the next year, then fifth, ninth. It wasn't until Winning Colors that he pulled in a Derby victory. Dance Floor's finish was the best since.

He trained Preakness winners Codex, in 1980, and Tank's Prospect, in 1985.

He has been involved in horses since his childhood in Antigo, Wis. But after getting a master's degree in education from the University of Wisconsin, Lukas spent several years teaching and coaching basketball in high school and college, where he befriended Indiana coach Bob Knight.

"I was making more in three months dabbling with horses than I was in nine months teaching," Lukas said. He began training quarter horses full time in 1967 and in 1978 switched over to thoroughbreds.

The business hasn't been the same since.

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